Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England

Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England

Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England

Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England

Synopsis

Just as twenty-first-century technologies like blogs and wikis have transformed the once private act of reading into a public enterprise, devotional reading experiences in the Middle Ages were dependent upon an oscillation between the solitary and the communal. In Reading in the Wilderness, Jessica Brantley uses tools from both literary criticism and art history to illuminate Additional MS 37049, an illustrated Carthusian miscellany housed in the British Library. This revealing artifact, Brantley argues, closes the gap between group spectatorship and private study in late medieval England.

Drawing on the work of W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Camille, and others working at the image-text crossroads, Reading in the Wilderness addresses the manuscript's texts and illustrations to examine connections between reading and performance within the solitary monk's cell and also outside. Brantley reimagines the medieval codex as a site where the meanings of images and words are performed, both publicly and privately, in the act of reading.

Excerpt

The only exact knowledge there is, is the knowledge
of the date of publication and the format of books.

Anatole france

If we accept the conservative epistemology of Anatole France, then in the highly speculative business of literary criticism medievalists are especially far from exactitude. “Date of publication” does not apply conceptually to the literature of a manuscript culture, in which a rough date of composition is often hard enough to come by. Students of the Middle Ages are left, then, with “the format of books” as our only potential access to “exact knowledge.” But here we are fortunate in having recourse to a rich array of evidence, for medieval manuscripts exalt format, demonstrating in the differences among realizations of the same work the importance of physical circumstance for the creation of literary meaning. Each handwritten codex is a unique object, wedding the text it presents to the form of its presentation less transparently, and more meaningfully, than do the mass productions of print culture. I shall explore here the format of one fifteenthcentury English book, not in the real hope of France's “exact knowledge,” but in recognition of the uniquely authoritative position of manuscripts as the material remains of medieval literary production and reception. Study of texts in the absence of contexts gives an artificial and ultimately misleading impression of the experience of reading in the Middle Ages. Attending broadly to manuscript format, however, can reveal in the medieval codex not only the meanings of texts, but also habits of thought.

In this study, I will investigate the late-medieval habits of thought that link reading with performance. the pairing may seem counterintuitive as a description of literary culture in the fifteenth century, a period when the rise of silent, individual reading is customarily thought to have . . .

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